Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094

When considering the critical reputation of Black Boy it is important to note that the novel was available only in a truncated version until 1977. In that year, the full text, American Hunger , was published. This work gives the reader a very different view of Richard because the hope...

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When considering the critical reputation of Black Boy it is important to note that the novel was available only in a truncated version until 1977. In that year, the full text, American Hunger, was published. This work gives the reader a very different view of Richard because the hope granted by the escape to the North at the "end" of the first section is undercut by the broken American dream found in Chicago in the second part. However, Black Boy in its 1945 version was well received and remains a popular work to this day. Critically, the work has been viewed as Wright's masterpiece, a twentieth-century version of the slave narrative, and a work of protest against racism, censorship, and intolerance. More recently, criticism has been focused on the restored novel (the version established by the Library of America) as cultural critique and a weapon against censorship. Such recent reviews have also looked more closely at the novel as pure sociology or, as Ellison previously suggested, at the Joycean quality of Wright's writing. This latter view sees Richard as a black version of Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ralph Ellison reviewed Wright's novel for the Antioch Review in 1945 in an essay entitled "Richard Wright's Blues". To him the work was a "blues-tempered" lyric such as Bessie Smith might sing. Richard Wright, Ellison went on, had given himself a duplicitous role: "to discover and depict the meaning of Negro Experience; and to reveal to both Negroes and whites those problems of a psychological and emotional nature which arise between them when they strive for mutual understanding." This became the aim of the "Wright School of Urban Realism". They were a group of authors inspired by Wright to use writing, as Robert A. Bone put it in The Negro Novel in America (1965), as a "means of dispelling inner tensions of race ... [and through a fictional protagonist] alter [white] attitude toward race."

In addition to Ellison, the novel was reviewed by Lionel Trilling for The Nation, on April 7, 1945. Trilling applauded Wright's effort, saying, "He has the objectivity which comes from refusing to be an object." A few months later, in an article for Esquire (June 23, 1945), Sinclair Lewis took a more direct approach. His review took the opportunity not to be critical of Wright but of America. Lewis defended the book against those who were made uncomfortable by it. He said there could be no reason to doubt the veracity of the book's report on living conditions for blacks given the echo found in official reports made by the NAACP, the daughter of a white Navy officer (Ruth Donenhower Wilson) in a book on Jim Crow, the U.S. government itself, and others. All told, he said, the South does in fact practice Jim Crowism and the North is not much better. Why, Lewis wonders with the NAACP, should Jim Crowism exist even within the troops and the Red Cross in the European war— within the "Army of Democracy" itself?

In the 1950s, the reputation of Wright ebbed as Ellison and Baldwin came into popularity. However, in the 1960s, black militancy preferred the forthright attitude of Wright, and his popularity rose to new heights Ronald Sanders, in "Richard Wright and the Sixties," had nothing but praise for Wright. Saunders called Black Boy Wright's masterpiece but also his swan song. Critically, the novel was regarded for what it was doing as a sociological study. For example, in The Art of Richard Wright, Edward Margolies portrays Wright as a generalist who extrapolates a blanket statement about American minorities based on his life. Margolies goes so far as to criticize Wright for playing the innocent too much. "[Wright's] theme is freedom and he skillfully arranges and selects his scene in such a way that he is constantly made to appear the innocent victim of ... tyranny." That may be, but in the 1970s, critics begin to make greater comparisons and even, as Martha Stephens does, place the pre-Native Son works ahead of the greater commercial successes. Stephens also returns to the questions of Ellison and Baldwin as to whether Wright has a picture of "real" negroes. The answer, she says, lies in the whole of his oeuvre.

Roger Whitlow, in his 1973 book entitled Black American Literature, shows Wright as a cultural mirror of blacks before the era of Civil Rights. Wright, for Whitlow, is a portrait of the blacks who made the same journey North making the same critical discoveries. Black Boy, according to Whitlow, echoes the theme of Native Son: "A man must have enough control over his environment to feel that he can mold it, if only slightly, so that it can provide him with at least a part of the realization of his dreams. When he has no such control, he ceases to be a functioning member of that environment; and he thereby divorces himself from its mores and its legal restrictions." Further, just as Richard discovered that neither the North nor South wanted the black man, he had to force his way in. Forcibly black writers, protesters, and speakers have hurled "words into darkness" though many assert that they are still waiting for the full echo of the dream of equality.

Recent views of Wright's work include an article by Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. written in 1993. There, in "Black Boy (American Hunger) • Freedom to Remember" published in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, the authors says that American Hunger is a statement against censorship of all forms. The inclusiveness of Wright's stance can be seen in the novel itself where Richard reflects on how he prefers the Southerner's outright rejection of him to the Northerner's polite tolerance. This article places Wright with Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and other writers of anti-censorship works by saying that "these books invite us to imaginatively recreate the experience of living within closed systems. It tells us much about social breakdown and disorder in American life with a vividness sociological writing cannot provide." In other words, Graham and Ward nicely tie together the artistic place of the writer with his responsibility (that responsibility which the "Wright school" focused on) to alter the consciousness of America for the better. In Wright's specific capacity as a survivor of Jim Crow and as a black man, they say, "Black Boy (American Hunger) is a critique of American optimism betrayed." The novel is a display of how the American dream as product fails to live up to the claims of the advertisement. Such critique is noted but needs to be acted upon.

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